Yesterday I found out I lost a brother. Not my biological brother, but my brother nevertheless. I first met Walt Woodward on November 21, 1981. He answered a cattle call that my brother and I started for us to find a new bass player and drummer. We ran these big ads in all the local rock rags and we ended up auditioning 147 musicians by the time Walt showed up with Nick Sodano. Walt and Nicky were the drummer and bass player for the local NJ band RACHEL. They had a solid following as one of the house bands at the old Soap Factory but their singer Rhett Forrester was about to join the band RIOT and so Walt and Nicky decided they would try out for us. I’ll never forget the first time I ever saw Walt. First, they were late for the audition and they were the 6th drummer/bass player tandem that we were auditioning that day, so I was in a foul mood, but Walt would have none of it. Walt was a striking presence, stood about 6 foot, lean, wearing sunglasses (inside) with this David Lee Roth mane of blond hair …oh …and did I mention that the cheeks of his butt were sticking out of holes in his jeans! That’s Walt…
From the time we started jamming with them we knew they were the ones. My brother started telling Walt and Nicky about this idea we had to create a band that would have a big show, like QUEEN – we didn’t just want to be another bar band – and as my brother was talking, I noticed this blond dude Walt’s face turning beet red. When you audition musicians, you get an eclectic bunch to say the least, from wimps to witches to people that should be locked away in rubber rooms, I was starting to think that Walt Woodward was the latter, in fact, I thought he was going to attack my brother, but instead, he jumped up (if you know Walt, you know how he did that) and started pacing and telling us all these ideas he had about starting, as he called it “the baddest-ass band.” He immediately grabbed some paper and started sketching all these band logos and stage props… Walt was a talented artist! Before they left, he walked over to me and stared at me with those blue eyes of his… all the Woodwards, I came to find out, had this same way of looking at you and you couldn’t tell whether they were teasing you or not. Walt finally leaned down and whispered in my ear, “You and I are gonna be good friends!” That was Walt…
I had just turned 17 years old when I met Walt. I had been gigging from the time I was 13 years old but not in rock bands… I played rock but I wasn’t a rock musician …Walt taught me the difference. Walt taught me a lot of things – about what it really takes to make it as a professional rock musician – the dedication, the drive, the passion. He taught me that you don’t just play rock music …you LIVE rock music. Walt was a free spirit, I was a tortured soul. He taught me how to enjoy the little things… the free things …the most valuable things – like friendship. I was (and still am) pretty much a loner, Walt was the complete opposite – he surrounded himself with friends. He had so many friends because he was a good friend to have. He did have his quiet times. Walt liked to read. He was always in the middle of some book. He also liked his “space” and his “things.” If you wanted to remain friends with Walt, you respected both.
Walt treated me like a younger brother and just like an older brother would, he teased me relentlessly. He used to draw caricatures of all of us – I would open my lyrics book or something and there would be one of his drawings of me with a text bubble coming from my mouth saying something dirty and hilarious. That was Walt…
When Nicky left the band, we had to audition for a new bass player. This time we didn’t run big ads, we just went to Walt. He knew EVERYONE! Danny Spitz knew Walt from the club scene and told Walt that his older brother Dave was a great bass player and would be interested in auditioning for us. When Dave showed up for his audition, Walt didn’t say a word to him at first – that was Walt’s way – too cool to talk to strangers – and hey, it was Walt’s band now – this greenie Dave was the one that had to prove himself. Well, Dave was awesome, blew me and my brother away in 60-seconds flat with his chops but Walt still wasn’t impressed. Finally Walt walked up to him and said, “We don’t allow anyone to have a mustache in our band!” My brother and I looked at each other… neither of us knew that “we” didn’t allow anyone with a mustache into our band. Walt asked Dave, “Will you shave it to join our band?” Dave looked at Walt with a sparkle in his eye and said, “Sure!” With that, Walt disappeared and reappeared with my brother’s razor. Before Dave could even blink, Walt applied shaving cream to exactly HALF of Dave’s mustache and shaved HALF of his mustache! Haha… tears of laughter in my eyes as I remember it …That was Walt…
Some other frivolous memories of Walt that are trapped in my head:
- Walt pierced my ear… twice …with a knitting needle, while we were sitting at a table eating breakfast.
- My brother used to be crazy about gargling with Listerine, even keeping a bottle nearby wherever we rehearsed. One time Walt picked up the bottle without saying a word and threw it into a nearby body of water (Mill Basin). Then just went and sat behind his drum kit like nothing happened… haha…
- Walt used to like the tuna I would make, so whenever I shacked with him at his apartment in Monrovia, he would tell me to make it and he would bake these little strawberry shortcakes that he bought at Vons.. and speaking about that Monrovia apartment…
- Some of you reading this may remember when he and Taylor (his room mate) turned the apartment into a copy of the set on “Bah Bah Black Sheep” complete with Tiki bar and this WWII bomb that they suspended from the ceiling.
- Walt used to pad-lock his bedroom inside his apartment – he liked his privacy.
- One time, before one of our rehearsals, Walt’s lung collapsed. He was living with Dave at the time. I’ll never forget how scared he looked with all these tubes running into his arm and chest. I thought it would slow him down – but a few days later when he was released from the hospital, he was already behind his drum kit again.
When our band broke up in 1984, we were all heartbroken, but I think Walt might have been the most heartbroken of us all. He was the most dedicated of us all. I few years later, I rang him up. I didn’t know what to expect – maybe he’d just hang up on me, but that wasn’t Walt’s way. He was honest, told me about his hard feelings but then he told me he was glad to hear from me. We ended up trying to get a band going again in 1989-1990 and then again in 1995. Each time we lived together. We were more than band mates, we were friends and more than friends … we were brothers.
The last time I talked to Walt was over a year ago. His dad had passed, so had mine. I had survived cancer and had gotten married …and I had four little boys that he never met. We talked about what he was doing. There was a little luster missing from his personality. For the first time, Walt told me that he was coming to terms with the prospect that he wasn’t going to be a big, famous rock star after all. I told him that was hogwash ‘cause he already was a big rock star. I remember telling him that old David Lee Roth quote, “Success is what you give yourself; fame is what other people give you.” I told him that his true success was in the music he played and in the friendships he had made along the way. We talked a little about the possibility of putting together another band – he said he was in – but we both could tell …it probably wasn’t gonna happen. We ended the phone conversation with my pleading for him to come out and visit me, my wife and our boys. I wanted him to meet them and I told him that they all wanted to meet “Uncle Dub.” His last words to me were, “I’m looking forward to it.” He added, ”Hey, you better be careful or I may not leave!” I told him that was okay too.
I didn’t call him again after that. Life got hectic here… our jobs, our kids… I thought about calling him a few times, but I always put it off, after all, what was the rush… my own cancer experience should have taught me differently. Anything can happen, anytime, to anyone.
I’m sitting here now, thinking about my friend, mourning his passing, looking at a photo of us on stage – man, he really was a rock star! That was Walt…
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Dean Wesley Smith